Building the Future

This was published today in the San Mateo Daily Journal.

Recently, there’s been a growing anti-development sentiment in many Peninsula communities, including San Carlos. That’s to be expected. When times are hard, like during the Great Recession, development is seen as a good thing, a sign that maybe the economy is picking up. When things improve, people focus on what comes with better times: more traffic, less readily available parking, the relocation or loss of older businesses.

But for a community like San Carlos, it’s important not to lose track of why development – actually re-development, since our city is almost completely built out – is important.

Re-development means property owners are willing to bet on our future. These days, one of the best places in the U.S., in terms of traffic congestion, abundant available parking and a “stable” business community, is Detroit. Because not a lot of people currently want to live or work there.

Hard as it may be to believe, it wasn’t so long ago that San Carlos began to fade away: population dropped, and few, if any, new businesses wanted to come here. In order to have a great future, we have to be a community that people want to invest in today.

More importantly, places like San Carlos cannot offer the public amenities and services they do without being a vibrant community. The tomorrow-must-be-the-same-as-yesterday approach isn’t consistent with the necessary energy. Residential property taxes pay for less than half of our police and fire services, let alone all the other things the community expects and local government provides.

What makes up the difference? Commercial property taxes, hotel occupancy taxes, sales and use taxes, business license fees, and the like. All of which depend on San Carlos being a place that people, residents and non-residents alike, want to enjoy.

But being an attractive place doesn’t happen by accident. It requires regular re-development, and a willingness to accept newcomers into our community.

The Marriott Residence Inn being built by the 101 freeway entrance is a great example of this. Getting a top-notch hotel for San Carlos was a decades-long goal of city government, spanning many Councils. It will make San Carlos more attractive to visitors, and in doing so generate more than a million a year in hotel occupancy taxes.

That money will help fund the police and fire departments, maintain public facilities like the library, the senior and youth centers, and all our parks, while also making it possible to hold favorite community events like Hometown Days, the Art & Wine Fair, and the Farmer’s Market.

Yet the Marriott almost didn’t get built. It took out-of-the-box thinking by staff, and a Council willing to take some novel actions. There were many in the local community who argued against it. “There’s never been a hotel like that built here, and there never will be”, was the refrain when the matter came before the Council.

But because there was a willingness not just to accept change, but to pursue opportunity, San Carlos is now on a path to buttress its civic finances. Plus, we’ll get a great new hotel to boot.

If you always look to the past, you won’t have much of a future. Better to learn from it, and use experience to shape what comes next. Because the future is coming whether we like it or not.

You won’t succeed with every attempt to build a better future. But, as the old saying goes about the difference between optimists and pessimists, you’ll have a lot more fun getting there. And a better, more rewarding life when you arrive.

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